The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Published by Picador Books on March 4th

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.;
What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?
Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .
Inspired by real events, The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is an intoxicating and suspenseful mystery, an unforgettable story of love and grief that explores the way our fears blur the line between the real and the imagined.

What I Say

I have to be honest, when I first received a copy of The Lamplighters I wasn’t sure that it would be my kind of novel. The story of three lighthouse keepers going missing? I just didn’t think it would engage me at all.

I was completely wrong. The Lamplighters is a remarkably haunting and compelling story of how important our memories are, of those left behind when the unthinkable happens, and how the only people we truly know are ourselves.

In 1972, three Lighthouse Keepers; Arthur Black , Bill Walker and Vincent Bourne simply disappear from the Maiden Rock Lighthouse in Cornwall. The door is locked from the inside, the place is clean and the table is set for two people, and the clocks are set to 8.45. That’s it. No Lighthouse Keepers, no clues, and a mystery that lies unsolved for twenty years.

In 1992, an author called Dan Sharp wants to try and solve the locked door mystery that has had such a huge impact on the families that were left behind and the communities that had to deal with all the attention this brought on them. Dan decides to get in contact with the wives and girlfriend of the Lighthouse Keepers, and we meet Helen, who was married to Arthur, Jenny who was Bill’s wife, and Michelle who was going out with Vinnie at the time of his death. Helen and Jenny are keen to speak to Dan, but for some reason they are estranged from each other at a time when they should have been closer than ever. Michelle doesn’t want to get involved, and initially decides not to speak to Dan. What was interesting for me was that how in the background of this narrative, always seeming slightly ominous, was the ever present Trident organisation that has effectively paid off the families to ensure their silence and the women are very mindful of this.

The novel moves seamlessly between the two narratives – that of 1972 and 1992, where we see the reality of life for the men in a lighthouse, and the lives of the people who are left behind after they disappear. What Emma does so well when describing the daily routines of the men, is to show how repetitive and mundane but entirely necessary their roles are. Arthur as the senior lighthouse keeper is meticulous and incredibly proud of what he does, and he wants the other men to appreciate how important their jobs are. He may seem aloof and introspective, but his dour demeanour hides a tragedy that has served to put a wedge between himself and Helen. Bill seems to always be slightly resentful of Arthur, and although initially we may believe it is because he covets Arthur’s job, the truth is far more destructive. Vinnie is the youngest and enthusiastic about his new job, but we learn that he has spent time in prison, and has brought and hidden a gun onto the Lighthouse.

With all three men hiding something from each other, we start to see just how claustrophobic and isolated they are. Stuck in an inaccessible lighthouse, having lots of time to think about things as they do their jobs, little by little, cracks start to form between them. The fact that they have to work night shifts in rotation too, all add to the fact that the lines between daytime and night time become blurred, and their imaginations start to work overtime and we are never quite sure what is real and what is imagined. All the time, ever present is the unforgiving and powerful sea all around them, and as a reader you are all too aware of how all encompassing and dangerous nature is, and how they are completely at its mercy.

Meanwhile back in the Keeper’s Cottages, we see how Jenny and Helen are poles apart in their personalities, and we also discover that Bill constantly makes Jenny feel inadequate as he holds Helen up as to the wifely example she should aspire to. As we hear their stories in 1992, in the form of monologues they deliver while speaking to Dan, it adds an authenticity to the narrative. They tell us not only the reality of having to be a Lighthouse Keeper’s wife, but also help to fill in the stories of their husbands, so we start to fully understand exactly why Arthur and Bill living together in such an enclosed space can only lead to tragedy.

Emma’s slow drip feed of revelations about each character’s personalities adds to the undeniable tension both in the Lighthouse and between the women at home. No one is without fault or flaw, and it is impossible to not empathise with each person as their story is slowly revealed. The moment that Arthur makes a discovery that changes everything he believed he knew about his wife is beautifully understated, and this devastating revelation sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in Dan Sharp trying to uncover the mystery twenty years later.

To say anything about what happens next would spoil The Lamplighters for you, and I have no intention of doing that! What I will say is that as the novel draws to its conclusion, you really feel the sense of panic and despair that permeates the Lighthouse, and there is a sense of other worldliness which only serves to add to the tension as little by little the plots seamlessly falls into place. You understand how incredibly frustrated and bewildered the women must be, and how they are unable to really live their lives after what has happened to them, and that the burden on them since the disappearance has been all consuming and overwhelming.

The Lamplighters worked so well for me because it absolutely wrong footed me – I had it all worked out. Until I really didn’t! Emma has written a novel that not only captures the physical and emotional toll of working in a Lighthouse, and the secrets that are held within, but also gives a voice to those who are so overlooked in history – the women who are left behind to run the men’s world when they are not there. It is a sensitive and emotional novel that perfectly articulates how memory can be an all encompassing force, and that when we are left alone with our thoughts for a long time, they can be just what we need to comfort us, but also the very things that serve to destroy us.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Camilla Elworthy and Katie Bowden for my gifted copies.

Bernard and Pat by Blair James

Bernard and Pat by Blair James

Published by Corsair

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

I suppose that these are the horses from which we are thrown.
We see things as we are, not as they are.
How do we best see? With eyes old or new?
How well do we rise after falling?

Catherine is small and everyone else is big. The world has lots of rules which she cannot keep up with, and lots of things happen that just don’t feel right. With Dad gone and Mum at work, Catherine spends her days with Bernard and Pat. These are days that she will never forget but never quite remember, either.

Bernard and Pat is a tour-de-force, a novel deeply aware of the peculiarities of memory and the vulnerability of childhood. Catherine’s voice is unforgettable.

What I Say

“I need it all, I need to know everything so that I can be anything because I do not know what to be, not what I am.”

How often do with think about our childhood, and the memories that make up that time? Do you remember every detail as if it was yesterday, or do you select the best and worst parts and the rest swims in front of your eyes definitely there, but you can’t be absolutely sure of every detail.

In Catherine, the narrator of Bernard and Pat, her memory is elusive. Sometimes she can recall every little thing, events and occasions are remembered with a piercing clarity that many of us can recognise, but seemingly without the comprehension and realisation that viewing them through adult eyes can bring. Catherine is being looked after by the apparently ordinary and overtly Christian Bernard and Pat while her Mum goes to work after her father passes away. Her brother James goes sometimes too, but what is very clear from the first few pages is that Bernard is sexually abusing Catherine.

The novel is told in short, sharp chapters that perfectly echo the concentration span and understanding of a young child, but as the novel progresses and the vocabulary becomes more sophisticated and erudite, it becomes clear to the reader that Catherine is now an adult narrating her story. Catherine has been profoundly affected by the trauma, and copes by dissociating her adult self from her experiences by using her childish voice. The story is punctuated by snapshots of Catherine’s life and especially her time at Bernard and Pat’s house. Little by little, from things she tells us about Bernard, we start to see how he engineered certain situations in order to molest Catherine.

As a reader it is heartbreaking to read Catherine’s story, to understand that this was happening when she was supposed to be safe. More shocking is that even when she tells her Mum that Bernard has been showing her pictures of naked women, and he is confronted, he manages to explain it away by saying that Catherine saw him looking at a catalogue to choose a birthday present for Pat. Bernard is respected in the community, is intelligent and plausible, so Catherine stays in his care. We are also completely aware of what is happening to Catherine, and Blair drips tension into every page as we wait to see what will happen to Catherine next as we are powerless to do anything other than be a helpless bystander.

I thought that the relationship between Bernard and Pat was also an interesting if troubling dynamic. Does Pat know or suspect anything about Bernard’s behaviour, and if so, why does she do nothing about it? I felt that there were hints to suggest that she did know, and that is what makes this novel even more upsetting, in that there is an adult in the situation who could have done something, but chose not to. Catherine subsumes her anger at what is happening to her, but in a series of recollections, we see how she is directing her anger at other, more weaker children around her.

As Catherine tells her story, we see how deeply she grieves for her Dad, and wishes that he was still there, because then she wouldn’t need to go to Bernard and Pat’s house, and this awful experience would never have happened. What becomes evident through the novel is that she is so devastated by what has happened to her that she even has to eventually change her name to Katy to dissociate herself from the horror of what has happened, and that she will never be truly free of it. When as an adult she sees Bernard in a supermarket, all the feelings come back and she has to relive it all again, trapped by her history she could not escape.

Bernard and Pat is unflinching in its depiction of child abuse, but it engages the reader because the horror of the situation is what is in the narrative we don’t know. We fill the gaps with our imagination and knowledge as adults, and like Catherine, are able to understand the severity and awfulness of what is happening to this child. A novel with this as the subject matter is undoubtedly hard to read, but Blair James instinctively understands exactly how to tell this sensitive and traumatic story with compassion and power.

Is it challenging to read? Absolutely. Yet at the heart of Bernard and Pat and testament to Blair’s writing is our total connection to Catherine. Our understanding of the unthinkable situation she is in, and how totally vulnerable she is makes Catherine’s story absolutely devastating but impossible to ignore.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Kimberley Nyamhondera for my gifted copy.

One Night New York by Lara Thompson

One Night, New York by Lara Thompson

Published by Virago on 14th January 2021

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

A thrilling debut novel of corruption and murder, set in the nightclubs, tenements and skyscrapers of 1930s New York.
At the top of the Empire State Building, on a freezing December night, two women hold their breath. Frances and Agnes are waiting for the man who has wronged them. They plan to seek the ultimate revenge.
Set over the course of a single night, One Night, New York is a detective story, a romance and a coming-of-age tale. It is also a story of old New York, of bohemian Greenwich Village between the wars, of floozies and artists and addicts, of a city that sucked in creatives and immigrants alike, lighting up the world, while all around America burned amid the heat of the Great Depression. It also marks the arrival of an exciting new talent on the Virago fiction list.

What I Say

One Night, New York is a glorious and absorbing delight of a book, that just explodes with energy on every page. It is ambitious in its scope, and perfectly captures the realities and sometimes unsavoury sides of living in New York in the 1930s.

It starts on the 21st December 1932, with two women, Frances and Agnes, on the seventy-second floor of the Empire State Building waiting for an unamed person to arrive. Why they are there, and what they are about to do is not clear, but what is absolutely evident from the first page is that these women have a score to settle – whatever the cost.

The whole book is seeped in the atmosphere and the deceptively glamourous lives led by the artists, creative people and downright unsavoury characters who inhabit this world. New York is evolving and with its changing and growing skyline, and it is the ever present background in this world – all seeing, all encompassing and in every part of the plot. The descriptions of the people, places, clothes and the lives they lead mean that this is one of those novels that is totally entrenched in the world it depicts, that every page, every scene captivates the reader completely.

Frances is fleeing from her controlling parents in Kansas. She boards a train for New York to go and meet her brother Stanley, and it is there she meets the glamorous Jacks and her charismatic friend Dicky. They want to use Frances as part of a makeover for a story Jacks is writing. Dicky gives her his card and asks her to come and see them when she is settled in New York. Frances is unable to read, so has to take his word for what he has told her. From the moment she arrives in New York and meets Stanley, Frances is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the city, and you see this vast and confusing place very clearly through her eyes as she struggles to comprehend how she will ever fit in.

Frustrated by Stan’s attempts to keep her in their apartment, she eventually makes her way to Jacks and Dicky’s house, where she meets Agnes, the young woman who will change her life forever. Frances feels a connection and a deep attraction to Agnes, but this meeting also paves the way for Frances to ingratiate herself into the less picture perfect side of New York.

Her relationship with Stanley is becoming increasingly strained, as he refuses to tell her what he does at night, why he has been assaulted, or why there are bundles of money under the floorboards in their apartment. Frances is an incredibly smart and intuitive woman who knows that what Stanley is not telling her is far more worrying than what he is, and when she is faced with an incredible loss, she resolves to find the answers – however distressing that may be.

Agnes confides in Frances about her family, how her Mother is being cared for by nurses, and how her sister committed suicide after being blackmailed by the New York Police for having had risqué photos taken. Now Agnes is being blackmailed too, and Frances realises that in order for them to live their lives in peace, they are going to have to take matters into their own hands.

One Night, New York does not shy away from the darker side of the city at all, and in doing so it opens up a whole new narrative for the novel. It is a world where extortion and corruption at every level is rife, and women are a convenient commodity to be picked up, used and tossed aside when they have outlived their usefulness. The violence is brutal and shocking, but it is completely integral and necessary to understand the way in which this world functions, and why Frances and Agnes are so intent on revenge.

For me, the pace of the novel was perfectly pitched, and you cannot help but feel a connection to all the characters in this novel because Lara Thompson makes you care about what happens to them. One Night, New York is a bold and ambitious novel that works so well because not only does it immediately pull the reader right into the heart of the action, but Lara Thompson has created relatable characters whose flaws and vulnerabilities give them the courage to take matters into their own hands to achieve the lives that they deserve.

Thank you so much to Kimberley Nyamhondera, Grace Vincent and Virago Press for my gifted copy.

Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch

Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch

Published by W&N Books on 3 September

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Meet Janet. Janet is sad. Not about her life, about the world. Have you seen it these days? 

The thing is, she’s not out to make anyone else sad. She’s not turning up to weddings shouting that most marriages end in divorce. She just wants to wear her giant coat, get rid of her passive-aggressive boyfriend, and avoid human interaction at the rundown dog shelter where she works. 

That is, until word spreads about a new pill that promises cynics like her one day off from being sad. When her family stages an intervention, and the prospect of making it through Christmas alone seems like too much, Janet finally decides to give them what they want. What follows is life-changing for all concerned – in ways no one quite expects. 

Hilarious, provocative and profound, Sad Janet is the antidote to our happiness-obsessed world. 

What I Say

Love is like gluten, I should have told the doctor. I can’t process it properly.

I know I should start with some measured and profound statement about Sad Janet, but I’m just going to say this. I absolutely and completely LOVED this book. One of my #MostSelfishReads2020 without a shadow of a doubt.

Right, now we have got that out of the way, you need to know why don’t you?

Janet lives her life in a perpetual state of sadness, but she is aware of it. She is fine just working and being at home and doing little else. The thing is, everyone else wants to ‘fix’ her, and mould her into the person they think she should be – happy, sociable and basically no trouble to her family. They want her to fit in, so they no longer have to explain her to anyone.

After graduating, she has decided to work in a crumbling dog shelter out in the middle of nowhere, with the formidable feminist powerhouse that is Debs, and Melissa, a positive and happy soul who is the exact opposite of Janet.

When she separates from her boyfriend, and aware that it actually doesn’t upset her that much, Janet starts to think about her life. All around her, people are happy- but not authentically. Self medication is mainstream, and viewed as the norm. When Janet is offered the opportunity to be part of a trial for a new pill claiming to provide happiness for the person taking it, and the prospect of a horrendous family Christmas on the horizon, Janet decides to sign up.

Part of the trial involves Janet going to an excruciating weekly meeting, with other trial participants, and it is there she sees a group of people who are just like her, and are really just there to talk about themselves or get the necessary boxes ticked to complete the trials. It’s run by a group leader called Karen who has a badly prepared marketing script and intends to stick to it, and a man from the Pharmaceutical company who is rather chillingly observing the group.

As Janet goes through the trial, her family are eagerly waiting for the new and transformed ‘happy’ Janet, and especially Janet’s Mother, who is eager for a daughter she can finally show off and bond with. This for me is the crux of the novel, and what makes it so relevant and true. We are so insistent on presenting and wanting ours and others best selves constantly, using filters and editing what we show people, making sure our lives are liked and retweeted. Our stock answer to any question about ourselves is ‘fine’, because to be truthful is unpalatable to hear. Janet is unique because she doesn’t subscribe to that – and it unsettles people because it means she is an individual in a world of sameness.

Little by little, Janet apparently seems to be benefitting from the medication, and is more aware of her feelings and those of other people. She even agrees to take an agonising trip to the Mall with her mother under duress in an attempt to try and feel what she thinks she should. That scene for me encapsulated perfectly the divide between how Janet functions and what her Mother wants her to be, and I absolutely felt Janet’s awkwardness and horror at being at the Mall!

Does this magical pill work? You will have to read Sad Janet to find out because I’m not giving any spoilers..

What I will say, is this novel repeatedly made me laugh out loud, and there were lines and paragraphs I wanted to underline because they were so perfectly written. Although it may seem that Sad Janet is a humourous novel about a woman trying to find happiness – that is not doing it the justice it deserves. It’s so much more.

It is an astute and incisive commentary about our world today, and possibly a near future where worryingly self medication becomes the norm, to deal with the fact we are not feeling or reacting in the way others believe we should. The story moves at a perfect pace, and as the novel progresses, you understand that Janet is finding what works for her, and she has exactly what she needs around her already – she just has to see it. Janet is a character who not only thoroughly entertained me, but also kind of made me feel that perhaps being more Janet is exactly what we all need to be right now.

I absolutely loved it.

Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Shadow Panel- Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Published by John Murray Press

Available at all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Routine makes Majella’s world small but change is about to make it a whole lot bigger.

*Stuff Majella knows*
-God doesn’t punish men with baldness for wearing ladies’ knickers
-Banana-flavoured condoms taste the same as nutrition shakes
-Not everyone gets a volley of gunshots over their grave as they are being lowered into the ground

*Stuff Majella doesn’t know*
-That she is autistic
-Why her ma drinks
-Where her da is

Other people find Majella odd. She keeps herself to herself, she doesn’t like gossip and she isn’t interested in knowing her neighbours’ business. But suddenly everyone in the small town in Northern Ireland where she grew up wants to know all about hers. 

Since her da disappeared during the Troubles, Majella has tried to live a quiet life with her alcoholic mother. She works in the local chip shop (Monday-Saturday, Sunday off), wears the same clothes every day (overalls, too small), has the same dinner each night (fish and chips, nuked in the microwave) and binge watches Dallas (the best show ever aired on TV) from the safety of her single bed. She has no friends and no boyfriend and Majella thinks things are better that way.

But Majella’s safe and predictable existence is shattered when her grandmother dies and as much as she wants things to go back to normal, Majella comes to realise that maybe there is more to life. And it might just be that from tragedy comes Majella’s one chance at escape.

What I Say

As I have got more and more into judging the novels on the Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Prize, one of the many things I have learned is that it means I have a responsibility to read all the books, whether it is one I would choose to read or not. That is the wonderful thing about reading, that in picking up books outside my comfort zone, I have not only found new authors, but also have had the chance to step into the worlds of unlikely protagonists like Majella O’Neill.

Big Girl, Small Town is absolutely and completely Majella’s story and we are with her every step of the way.

It takes place in a Northern Irish town called Aghybogey where Majella lives and works. In fact she has never been anywhere else, and the town she lives in is her world. She works for the minimum wage in a fish and chip shop, and is also dealing with her Mum who is an alcoholic and utterly dependent on Majella. Her father is no longer living with them, having vanished as The Troubles raged around them.

The domestic and mundane life that Majella and her family has, is set against the world around them, and although The Troubles are known as an historical event, in Majella’s world they are part of the fabric of her family’s history too. We learn that her Granny has been murdered in her own home, and in spite of it, Majella has to carry on as normal for her Mum and for herself.

Majella is autistic, although that is never explicitly stated, and we see how she has to naviagate her life by establishing routines and strategies for dealing with the world around her. Everything is very black and white for her, and to cope with situations like the suggestive and rude male customers at the Chippy, she had to ‘learn’ the socially acceptable way to deal with them so that she can function.

I thought Michelle handled this really sensitively – Majella copes by stimming – which for her is rocking on the balls of her feet and flicking her fingers. This isn’t made into a huge part of the story, but as readers we can see it, and it is the little details and quietly mentioned rituals and routines that add poignancy and emotion to what Majella is dealing with.

Her bedroom at home becomes her haven – a place where she can make it just as she wants it, even though the rest of the house is like a bomb site. It is her place to eat, to watch her Dallas DVDs, to think and to be in peace. For me, one of the most touching scenes in the book is when Majella treats herself to a new luxurious duvet set that she has paid for herself. It is joyous to see how wonderful it makes her feel, but tinged with sadness that she has no one to do that for her.

Majella and her mother almost become local celebrities because of her Granny’s murder, but as awkward and uncomfortable as it is for Majella, it almost gives her an air of untouchability and celebrity by association. In a strange way, this helps Majella exist in a world where repetition and the tedium become her comfort.

I would have to say that Big Girl, Small Town is not a cosy, comfortable read. The humour and laughter is balanced by the less than palatable part of Majella’s life. She has unromantic sex with Marty her married work colleague because she wants to have sex, not because she is attracted to him, and through the novel the sex she has is unemotional and without passion. The sex scenes and the way sex is talked in almost a biological sense fit in with the story because Majella is very matter of fact and direct too.

The novel also shows us the stark reality of life for people in a town who do not have a lot of money, and are trying to survive the day to day grind. At times this may seem bleak, but it is also important to note that there is an innate sense of community and at times humour too. Everyone knows everyone else, although it might seem like they don’t, they look out for each other and try to help as much as they can.

Majella’s life outside work consists of her looking after her alcoholic Mum and eating food from the chippy alone in her bedroom. She seemingly just accepts that this is her life, and gets on with it, however heartbreaking it may be for us as the reader to see.

I thought that it was a brilliant plot device of Michelle’s to have Majella working in a chippy, as it is a focal point for the town, and gives the reader a chance to meet all the different characters who go there. It may seem like nothing much happens on a daily basis, but by hearing their stories, we learn about the reality of life in Aghybogey. Going to the chippy is part of their routine and gives some people structure, other people a place to gossip, and for some characters it is their connection to the world beyond their front doors.

Big Girl, Small Town finally offers some hope for Majella after her Grandmother passes away, and a will is read, and when she realises that someone believes in her she finally starts to believe in herself. Majella understands that she has the potential to change her life – all she has to do is to find her courage. If you love a novel that is packed with larger than life characters and writing that moves from laughter to sadness and back again, then Big Girl, Small Town should absolutely be on your reading list.

It is at times undoubtedly challenging to read, as you really feel for Majella and the seemingly bleak life she leads, and it was painful at times to watch what happens to her. This I think is what Michelle is trying to show us – that although Majella is seemingly caught in a world without hope, the chance to change her story is always present – she just needs to believe in herself enough to take the first step.

Comedy Women In Print Shortlist Shadow Panel – Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Published by Trapeze

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

Queenie is a twenty-five-year-old Black woman living in south London, straddling Jamaican and British culture whilst slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white, middle-class peers, and beg to write about Black Lives Matter. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie finds herself seeking comfort in all the wrong places. 

As Queenie veers from one regrettable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be? – the questions that every woman today must face in a world that keeps trying to provide the answers for them. 

A darkly comic and bitingly subversive take on life, love, race and family, Queenie will have you nodding in recognition, crying in solidarity and rooting for this unforgettable character every step of the way. A disarmingly honest, boldly political and truly inclusive tale that will speak to anyone who has gone looking for love and acceptance and found something very different in its place. 

What I Say

If like me, you are on bookish social media (a lot in my case!) you cannot have failed to have heard about Queenie. When it was published in 2019, it was everywhere, and I have to admit that for that very reason, I bought a beautiful teal hardback signed copy, and then put it on my shelf and promised myself I would read it. I didn’t.

When I found out it had been shortlisted for the Comedy Women In Print Prize, it was the perfect time to read it, because all the noise around it had quietened down and it meant that I could now give Queenie my undivided attention.

I am so glad I did, because I loved this novel.

Queenie seemingly embraces and lives life to the fullest – she has a supportive family, a group of quite frankly fabulous friends, a great job and a relationship with Tom. The novel opens with Queenie at a Sexual Health Clinic with her Auntie Maggie, but it transpires she has suffered a miscarriage, and that actually her relationship with Tom is on an extended break, and he doesn’t want anything to do with her.

What is also evident throughout the novel is the amount of casual racism which permeates every part of Queenie’s world. Strangers want to touch her hair and men on dating apps make awful sexual and racist comments constantly. Tom is white, and although his family appear to have no issue with him dating a Black woman, it is their thoughtless and internalised racism that comes to the fore in throwaway comments or behaviour.

Queenie has a brilliant group of friends she nicknames ‘The Corgis’ – the fabulous Kyazike, her kind work colleague Darcy, and the ever analytical Cassandra. Queenie has an amazing and enviable bond with these women, and their WhatsApp exchanges are so natural and real, that it felt as if I was part of the group too! Their sense of protectiveness and being true and real with each other really reminded me of how powerful and needed female friendships are.

Although Queenie seems to enjoy her job on a national newspaper, she is frustrated by their lack of embracing her efforts to talk about wider issues that affect Black people. Gina her boss is exasperated at times by Queenie’s disengagement with her role, but you get the sense that Gina sees Queenie’s potential if only she could too.

As Queenie starts to grudgingly accept that she and Tom are over, she starts to meet other men – Queenie wants sex and is unapologetic about it. Some of the sex scenes in Queenie are very graphic, at times brutal and disturbing, and one experience she has with a man called Guy was really difficult to read. In fact when she goes to the sexual health clinic, the staff think she is a sex worker, and that the extent of her injuries give them concerns as to whether she has had consensual sex or has been assaulted.

The men she encounters are not looking for a relationship, and the fact she is Black is something they almost see as a point on their score card. What becomes evident to the reader as the novel progresses is that Queenie is using sex as a way to try and feel something, a connection, a sense of power, but it is really masking her mental deterioration and subsequent breakdown. There is also the sense that something in Queenie’s childhood is always simmering constantly at the back of her mind, and that is has shaped how she sees her own relationships.

This is what really resonated with me about Queenie – is that this young woman who seemingly has so much to look forward to is trying so hard to be so many things to so many people, but is also dealing with the fact that she is estranged from her Mum because of the actions of another man. Queenie’s world starts to unravel – a man she has been pursued by and slept with alleges she has been harrassing him, she is then suspended from her job, loses her home and is forced to move in with her grandparents.

Her decision to seek counselling is something her grandparents find difficult to accept, but eventually they understand why she has to. For me, Queenie’s grandparents were two of my favourite characters. Their love and care for Queenie was such a powerful thing to read, and the fact that they dealt with her in the only way they knew how- by refusing to let her dwell on what she was going through was really affecting for me.

Slowly by confiding in her therapist Janet, Queenie starts to let her and us as readers into her life, and we see exactly what happened and why she is estranged from her Mum. Little by little, Queenie starts to rebuild her life and when the man who got Queenie suspended at work is found to have lied about their consensual sex, it is finally time for Queenie to take the next steps in life, but this time, she is in control.

As a forty-nine year old white woman, I thought I was not the target market for this book. I was wrong.

Candice Carty-Williams has written a novel that draws you in from the first page, and it is witty, warm, and a joy to read. At times it is undeniably challenging too, and honestly I found some of the sex scenes very hard to read. It made me think so much about the world Queenie lives in, and the reality of life for Black women in Britain today. Queenie is a novel that is many things, it is fast moving, funny, tender and at times heartbreaking too.

What is at the heart of this novel for me is the realisation Queenie comes to as to how important and necessary family and friends truly are. Above all, it introduced me to Queenie and her world, and I very much hope I get the chance to meet her again really soon.

The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa

The Blessed Girl by Angela Makholwa

Published by Bloomsbury

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say.

Young, beautiful and ambitious, Bontle Tau has Johannesburg wrapped around her finger. Her generous admirers are falling over themselves to pay for her Mercedes, her penthouse, and her Instagrammable holidays. It’s her duty to look fabulous – after all, people didn’t sacrifice their lives in the freedom struggle for black women to wear the same cheap T-shirts they wore during apartheid.

Bontle’s come a long way, and it hasn’t been easy. Her shrink keeps wanted to talk about a past she’s put firmly behind her. And what she doesn’t think about can’t hurt her, can it?

Blessed adj. [pronounced bles-id] 
The state of being blessed, often referring to a person, usually female, who lives a luxurious lifestyle funded by an older, often married partner, in return for sexual favours.

What I Say.

“All men are dogs, and I’d rather be crying in a Ferrari than in a Polo Playa, honey.’

I had actually bought a copy of The Blessed Girl before I was asked to be a Shadow Judge for the Comedy Women In Print Prize because it looked just the kind of novel I was looking for! I was thrilled to see it being Shortlisted and now I had the perfect reason to sit down and read it!

Let me tell you right from the very first page, I am so pleased I did.

Make no mistake, Bontle Tau is a protagonist quite unlike anyone you have ever met before. From the moment you start reading The Blessed Girl, it is abundantly clear this young woman is passionate, determined, and defiantly unapologetic for the life she is leading. She seems to live and narrate her life directly to us as if she exists on social media, and is constantly filtering and editing her world until it gets the maximum number of likes.

Bontle has a lifestyle that many of us would be envious of. A gorgeous apartment, designer clothes, a fabulous car and Instagrammable holidays we could only dream about. The thing is, and as she tells us from the start, Bontle is a blessed girl, which means that her lifestyle is solely funded by the powerful and rich older men she sleeps with.

She also knows exactly what she has to do and how she has to look to ensure that the men who bless her stay with her and continue to fund her day to day existence.

We find out that Bontle is actually still legally married to a man called Ntokozo. They met when they were young and got married, much to the disdain of Ntokozo’s family, and for a time seemed to be happy. Unfortunately Ntokozo’s work as a doctor, and the pressure he was under, led to him becoming addicted to drugs. Bontle felt isolated and unhappy, and decided she needed to find a way to live her own life and be free from him.

As Bontle decides to pursue the life of a Blessed Girl, she seems to relish the fact that these men will give her whatever material things she wants in exchange for sleeping with them. Bontle knows this, but doesn’t have a problem with it, and is also running her own hair weave business. She regards these men as transactions in her life as a means to her achieving her own dream of opening up her own boutique. While it may be uncomfortable for us to read about Bontle’s choices, for me, the fact that she was so direct and aware of what she is doing and why, helped my understanding.

As the novel progresses, Bontle is regularly sleeping with three men – Teddy Bear, Mr Emmanuel and Papa Jeff and she has no qualms about stealing them from other women – even her friends, if they will give her what she wants. When Teddy Bear needs her to be the front of his building development she does so half heartedly, but is motivated by the fact that she will receive a nice big payment for doing so!

To assume that this book is simply a light hearted, fluffy story about Bontle’s Blessed world would do Angela Makholwa’s novel a huge disservice. What works so brilliantly is the way in which in a slow and understated way, we start to see how Bontle’s childhood and relationship with her mother and brother Golokile has shaped the choices she makes now. The perfection of her present world is set against the harsh and uncompromising reality of Bontle’s past childhood home, and the way her mother raised her and failed to protect her.

We see how Bontle is trying to cope with both of her lives, help her brother make a better life for himself and for her mother to understand what she did affected Bontle so deeply. When we finally see what happened to Bontle, suddenly I understood why the life she leads now is the one she feels will help her achieve her dreams. It may seem like the men are using her, but Bontle is using them too.

Hand on heart, I absolutely loved The Blessed Girl. It is funny, fast paced and opened my eyes up to a whole new world of Blessed Girls and Blessers that I had never heard of before. It may be uncomfortable reading at times, but the thing about The Blessed Girl is that as readers we need to understand the world Bontle came from and why. Angela’s writing is incisive, smart and puts Bontle front and centre of everything, which is where she absolutely deserves to be.

I loved it.

This Lovely City by Louise Hare

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This Lovely City by Louise Hare

Published by HQ Stories

Available from all Good Bookshops and Online

 

What They Say

The drinks are flowing.
The music is playing.
But the party can’t last.

With the Blitz over and London reeling from war, jazz musician Lawrie Matthews has answered England’s call for help. Fresh off the Empire Windrush, he’s taken a tiny room in south London lodgings, and has fallen in love with the girl next door.

Touring Soho’s music halls by night, pacing the streets as a postman by day, Lawrie has poured his heart into his new home – and it’s alive with possibility. Until, one morning, he makes a terrible discovery.

As the local community rallies, fingers of blame are pointed at those who had recently been welcomed with open arms. And, before long, the newest arrivals become the prime suspects in a tragedy which threatens to tear the city apart.

What I Say

I need to start this Blog Post with an apology to Louise.  I read This Lovely City in May, and adored it, and started a blog post straight away, but I just couldn’t find the right words to tell you all about it.  We were in the middle of lockdown, adjusting to life with all four of us – five if you include our dog, at home, all the time, and we didn’t know what was going to happen next.  Juggling everyday life, school work, new rules and not being able to go out as and when we wanted hit me hard.  The world beyond our house was also facing an unprecedented time, people were protesting throughout the world about Black Lives Matter, and my words somehow didn’t seem important enough to publish.

The thing is, that Louise’s novel is on the bookshelf in my dining room, and every time I went in there, it was sat there waiting for me in its bold and beautiful cover.  I need to tell you about this novel, about Lawrie and Evie, about why their story is so important for us all, and how we think everything has changed in our society, but in so many ways, there are so many attitudes that have not moved on from the time where Lawrie and Evie’s story is set.

Lawrie is part of the Windrush generation, who has come to our country in search of a better life for himself and his family.  He is in love with Evie, the girl next door, who lives with her mother Agnes, and they are like most young people, trying to find a way to spend some time together in a world where it is not seen as appropriate for unmarried couples to spend time together alone. Lawrie is working as a postman, but at night time, he and his friends form a jazz group and play at venues around London.  It seems that this is when Lawrie and London really come alive – Louise’s descriptions of the sights and sounds of this world which where Lawrie really can be himself are so vibrant and real that you feel you are sat in the corner watching these friends enjoy their lives.

One day, when Lawrie is on his post round, he is approached by an hysterical woman who has found the body of a baby in a nearby pond. When Lawrie is taken to the station to give his side of the story, it is clear from the moment that he enters the room, that the police are certain Lawrie killed the child. What is so unnerving and uncomfortable to read about this incident, is not only the judgements that the police unquestioningly put on Lawrie, but how casually and unconsciously their attitude and manner towards him is dripping with the racism they are so comfortable with.

With seemingly little to go on, Lawrie is released – to find that the tyres on his bike have been slashed.  This is what makes This Lovely City so difficult but so necessary to read. This is London in the 1950s. Lawrie and his friends were actively encouraged to come here by the government as part of the Windrush generation, to help Britain rebuild after the Second World War, but the shiny pamphlets and promises of a better life failed to mention the way in which they would be treated and the racist attitudes that they would encounter at every turn.

Lawrie may have been released, but as the baby who passed away was black, the police are convinced that the person who committed the crime must be too, and they step up their threats and intimidation, seemingly randomly targeting people in an attempt to illicit a confession from someone. The interesting thing in this investigation too is that Mrs Barratt, a white woman who found the child’s body is automatically discharged from the enquiry.

As the investigation continues, what is so strong in this narrative is that all this tension, suspicion and sobering sense of unease is set against the love story of Evie and Lawrie.  Her love binds him to her unquestioningly, and her determination to prove that Lawrie is innocent is the driving force throughout the novel.  Evie also faces casual racism on a daily basis, from people not taking her seriously at work, to those not wanting to sit near her on a bus. For me, these scenes were shameful to read, because they were so casual yet so ingrained in so many people.

All Lawrie and Evie want to do is to have the chance to be married, and to embrace the life that was tantalisingly promised to them by the very country that is so intent on destroying it. As the novel moves forward, it becomes clear that both Lawrie and Evie have hidden secrets from each other, frightened that revealing them could end their relationship.  Ultimately, it is only by realising that their love for each other is the most powerful and immovable force, that they can finally be honest with each other and live the life together that they deserve.

From the very moment you turn the first page, in This Lovely City, Louise Hare immerses you absolutely in London in the late 40’s and early 50’s.  The sights, sounds and world Lawrie and Evie are in are so clear and vibrant that it makes you lose yourself totally.  Both Lawrie and Evie are characters that not only are trying to find their way in this huge and sometimes cruel city, but they are also trying to find a way to be together totally honestly, when both have secrets they are desperately trying to hide from the person they love the most.

This Lovely City is a novel that will educate you, make you see how far we think we have come in terms of our understanding and condemnation of racism, but unflinchingly shows us how much there is still to do and how much further we have to go. At the heart of this unforgettable story and in every single page is the love story of Lawrie and Evie. All they want is to live together in peace, in the city they love, and their innate capacity for love and tolerance is perhaps the most important lesson we need to take from their enduring narrative.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you very much to Joe Thomas and HQ Stories for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

The Cat And The City by Nick Bradley

 

The Cat and The City by Nick Bradley

Published by Atlantic Books

Available at all Good Bookshops and Online

 

What They Say:

In Tokyo – one of the world’s largest megacities – a stray cat is wending her way through the back alleys. And, with each detour, she brushes up against the seemingly disparate lives of the city-dwellers, connecting them in unexpected ways.

But the city is changing. As it does, it pushes her to the margins where she chances upon a series of apparent strangers – from a homeless man squatting in an abandoned hotel, to a shut-in hermit afraid to leave his house, to a convenience store worker searching for love. The cat orbits Tokyo’s denizens, drawing them ever closer.

 

What I Say:

As soon as I had seen the cover (shallow I know!) of Nick Bradley’s novel The Cat and The City, I knew I wanted to read it.

The novel is set in Tokyo, and each of the chapters could be read as a short story in its own right. Honestly, when I started the novel, I thought this is what I was reading. We meet a seemingly disparate cast of people, whose only connection to the plot seems to be that they live in Tokyo.

This is the brilliance of Nick’s writing, because as you read on, the same names start to appear, locations and families become common, and throughout it all, weaving its way through the streets of Tokyo is the singular figure of the cat. By the end of the novel, you understand that everything and everyone is connected, and Tokyo is a city where the actions of one person have unforeseen and sometimes life changing consequences for others.

We start with a young enigmatic woman called Naomi asking to have a map of Tokyo tattooed on her back, done in a traditional manner which will take months to complete. As a rebellious gesture, Kentaro the tattooist adds a cat to the design- except the cat moves around the design every time he works on it, and he starts to doubt his own sanity.

The story moves on to a homeless man called Ohashi, who once was a well known storyteller, but now makes his living by selling crushed cans he scavenges around the streets of Tokyo. He lives with the cat in a derelict hotel, after losing everything he had to drink and has been relentlessly haunted by the fact he left his daughter who was dying. He is estranged from his brother Taro who drives a cab and has his own story to tell.

Taro’s passengers include characters we meet further on in the book, including Flo, who works as a translator for a PR firm, and has dedicated her spare time to translate a novel by one of her favourite Japanese authors to give to her friend. Unfortunately, Flo is shattered when her friend presents her with a copy of one that has just been published, and wonders about what she is doing in the world and why. Flo was a really interesting character for me. She is an American living in Tokyo, and although she tries to fully submerge herself into Tokyo and the cultural life, you always get the sense she is slightly on the edge, and is trying to find her way and sense of identity in the world. Flo desperately wants to belong in Tokyo, and it is only by admitting this to her co-worker Kyoto that she can make her first tentative steps to do so.

Nick also constantly plays around with the novel as a stylistic genre. There are chapters which is the translation of the novel Flo has been working on, there are photos that one character posts to his social media on an evening out, and one of my favourite chapters – Hikikomori, Futoko & Neko is illustrated in the style of a manga novel – and it works perfectly!

The story of Hikikomori, Futoko & Neko was simply and cleverly told, as an agoraphobic young man finds his way back to the world through his friendship with Ken and their shared care of the cat who has been injured. When you find out that Ken asks Nao to write to him, and Nao is spotted by the cat going to the postbox;

He was going from lamppost to lamppost, hugging one as he went. A step at a time, cautious as a man in a war zone“.

It is writing like that, that honestly made me take a breath as you absolutely understand what Nao has gone through to reach that point. It is the realisation of how we are all linked by the things we do and the actions we take, which adds another level to this intricate and absorbing novel.

I learned so much about Tokyo and its culture and tradition from reading The Cat and The City, but do not think that this is an Instagram filtered perfect version of the world. You are taken to the heart and soul of Tokyo, and it is at times brutal, unpalatable and difficult to read about. Sex is often regarded as a soulless transaction and a means to an end, and some of the situations the characters face were very challenging for me to read, but I appreciate it is integral to the cohesion of the novel and the plot.

For me, at the very heart of The Cat and The City, is the notion of a human need to connect with others and to belong – be it to society or to another person. The central figure of the cat winds its way through the story, paving the way for people to find themselves and their families again. The cat is the impetus to help them understand that even in a huge city like Tokyo, sometimes you need to look around you to understand that life is waiting for you if you just have the courage to take the first step.

The Cat and The City is a brave, different and at times very unsettling novel, but one that will stay with me for a long time, and I am so glad I read it.

Saving Missy by Beth Morrey

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Saving Missy by Beth Morrey

Published By Harper Collins

Available from all good Bookshops and Online from 6th February

What They Say.

Missy Carmichael’s life has become small.

Grieving for a family she has lost or lost touch with, she’s haunted by the echoes of her footsteps in her empty home; the sound of the radio in the dark; the tick-tick-tick of the watching clock.

Spiky and defensive, Missy knows that her loneliness is all her own fault. She deserves no more than this; not after what she’s done. But a chance encounter in the park with two very different women opens the door to something new.

Another life beckons for Missy, if only she can be brave enough to grasp the opportunity. But seventy-nine is too late for a second chance. Isn’t it?

What I Say.

“But I still felt it somewhere – that spark. The beginning of something. Or the end. Who knows?”

There is as always, a bit of a back story to my choosing Saving Missy to review (not a long one I promise!). Some of you will see me frequently talk about LoveReading on my Twitter and Instagram feeds, and wonder what they are. In the simplest terms, if you sign up to them, you get the chance to read and review the latest releases in return for posting a review. I should also say that this is not an ad for them, and that all they have done so far is to supply me with fabulous books! Anyway, the always fabulous Liz Robinson of LoveReading sent me a copy of Saving Missy last year, and of course I am not going to spoil the ending, but let me tell you, there were quite a few DMs exchanged between us as to how wonderful Saving Missy is.

Why? I am going to go out on a limb here, and tell you that Saving Missy is already going to be on My Most Selfish Reads of 2020 – because it’s that brilliant.

How to tell you about Saving Missy without saying too much is difficult, but this is what you need to know about the story. Missy Carmichael is a 79 year old woman, her husband Leo is no longer at home, and her children Alistair and Mel have grown up and moved out.

The thing is, Missy now rattles around a large house in Stoke Newington, and just exists in a constant state of following the same routines she always has, often not speaking to anyone from day to day. One day, on a trip to the park, she encounters Angela and Otis, a Mum and son who have come to watch the fish being moved out of the park’s pond. After Missy has a fall, and people rush around her to help, she fades into the background once again. Except she keeps meeting Angela and this time, Angela needs her help to look after a dog called Bobby that she has inherited.

Little by little, Missy finds herself in a situation where she has to start to let people in to her life, to understand that by making connections with the outside world she will start to live the life she really deserves. That may sound melodramatic, but to simply say that Saving Missy is a light hearted feel good novel does no service to the novel or to Beth Morrey.

Saving Missy is a novel that totally resonated with me on so many levels. The notion of Missy always as Leo’s wife, Ali and Mel’s Mum, means that her identity has been shaped by the needs and demands of those around her. Little by little, she has lost herself along the way, and all her hopes and dreams had to be put to one side as she focussed on helping her family thrive. I thought it was interesting to see how in her marriage, her intelligence and passion for learning had to be quashed in order to ensure that her husband is the head of the household. I know so many women who have done the same thing, and the level of frustration and invisibility they feel is more and more evident.

As Beth Morrey goes backwards and forwards in time so you can unravel Missy’s story, it helps to underline how frustrating and unheard so many women were. They had to make a choice, family or career, and those who chose the latter were seen as having made an unnatural choice. This device added an extra layer to the novel, as you were really able to see Missy completely, and how the choices she made and those she was pressured to make, made her the woman she is now.

I thought it was also really interesting to see how Missy’s house is always the ever present place at the heart of everything. First a place to be with her husband, then as a family home, and finally as almost a place where she can escape to when the world gets too much, but it’s also a claustrophobic and lonely place too sometimes. It is only by having the courage to step outside it, and to let people in that she can really start to live again.

In lesser hands, the character of Missy could have been a stereotypical lonely old lady, which would have grated and meant that I didn’t engage with the story at all. Beth Morrey is so adept at making Missy a real, relatable and interesting woman, that you can’t help but absolutely feel you need to see what happens. I loved Angela too, she is such a fabulously unapologetic character, who is doing the best she can, and I wish that authors would do this more often – we need to see people who are not Instaperfect mothers, and who are simply happy that their kids make it through each day!

As Missy gets more and more involved with the world around her, she starts to finally open up to them, and as a result, Missy becomes part of their world as much as they become part of hers. The story moves at a perfect pace, and to say too much would give it a way, but Beth writes so perfectly that the plot is seamless, and it’s simply one of those novels that you lose yourself in.

Saving Missy is quite simply a novel you need to read – especially in a world where at times everything at the moment seems so bleak. It is a perfectly pitched and executed novel about a woman who has almost given up on the world around her, but the kindness of the people who live so close by bring her back to life. It is a book that tackles huge issues such as illness, grief, loneliness, love and sexuality, but not for one moment do you feel like you are being preached to.

It is a glorious, kind, loving and special novel that will resonate with so many readers, and makes us think how the smallest actions we take, can have the biggest impact on those who feel they are invisible and unloved in the world around us.

I absolutely loved it – and I hope you do too.

Thank you as always to Liz Robinson and Charlotte Walker at LoveReadingUK for my gifted copy.